Steamboat Springs A l Mercier had not skied at the Steamboat Ski Area since he made the trip out in 1973 with his Lansing (Michigan) Ski Club for the NASTAR National Championships.
"I won a bronze, and it was an absolute thrill for me - I still have that medal," Mercier said.
On Saturday, Mercier stood atop the lower Bashor slalom course for the 2007 edition of the championships as a fellow skier in the men's 75-79 Gold Division told Mercier he had just skied the fastest first-run time of 21.03 seconds.
Mercier and his friend, Dick Masters - both will soon turn 80 - decided to race NASTAR this year and joked that at the top of their age category, they were "racing against a bunch of children."
"This is a fun thing, but on course, you're serious as hell and you want to beat that other bugger," Masters said, estimating Boyne Mountain, the Michigan hill he qualified on, had about the same total elevation gain as the entire Bashor race course.
But the pair still were youngsters in the eyes of John Woodward, who at 91 was the championships' oldest racer and the sole competitor in the 90-95 division. Woodward opted for NASTAR races after the Super-G races in the USSA Masters program became a "little wild" and opted "to find something not some worrisome."
The world champion duo of A.J. Kitt and Phil Mahre set pace for the course (when they weren't busy cracking jokes and signing autographs with racers), which racers could then judge their own handicapped times against. Woodward was then the first racer down for his second run.
"Skiing is something you don't lose interest in very easy," Woodward said. "Especially if you're going to keep racing for a bit."
From Woodward to 3-year-old Demitri Panos, the broad range of skiers and riders in 44 age groups with multiple divisions spread across 22 courses, and representing 109 of 120 eligible resorts certainly proved the lasting interest in the standardized national citizen races. U.S. Ski Team star and three-time Olympian Daron Rahlves acted as the NASTAR national pacesetter - meaning his time served as a "zero" handicap for other racers to base their own handicaps off of and to set standardized "par times" for courses nationwide. Racers averaged their best of two runs from Friday and Saturday to determine their division finish.
NASTAR director of operations Bill Madsen said Saturday's races were not only a testimony to the popularity of what has grown from eight ski areas in 1968 to the world's largest recreational ski and snowboard race program, but also to Steamboat's ability to master the logistics of the massive event.
"It's a real credit to Steamboat," Madsen said. "There's not a lot of places in the world that can host an event with 1,300-plus racers. They've put a lot into making the event the best it can be and it shows with everyone standing around with smiles on. It's about making sure people are having good times and an opportunity to be a success and get on the podium."
Val Gurvits, a Boston resident who qualified for the championships at Mount Sunapee, N.H., in the 40-45 division, was just happy to be skiing and competing alongside his daughter, Michelle, who was racing in the 9-10 division.
"I get to ski, she gets to put on the race suit, the family watches from home when I upload the video to the Internet, everyone cheers her on and it's fun," Gurvits said. "It's also nice to be in a town like Steamboat where people see the NASTAR emblem and say, 'good luck.'"
The parent-child racing tandem of Idaho's Paul and Dylan Vogel also felt strongly about the deeper lessons that could be learned from the championship experience.
"Dylan talked with a 10th Mountain Division veteran and some of the masters skiers who were giving him ski tips; it's just a different way for him to relate to adults," Paul Vogel said of his 13-year-old son's newfound commitment to racing. "The competition has done more for him learning about being a boy and about being a man than any other endeavor : He talked to Daron Rahlves for a couple minutes, one of his heroes that really inspired us - what a great experience."
When asked about the personal appeal of standing at the gates, Paul Vogel had a simple answer: "It's an opportunity to measure yourself - How far am I off an Olympian? Like hitting that 220-yard, 3-wood drive and nailing the pin, it's approaching that elevated level of skill, I don't want to say perfection, but NASTAR gives you that measure."
Competition concludes today with the winner-take-all "Race of Champions" that brings together all Saturday's national title winners to crown an overall national champion.
For more information on NASTAR and for complete results, view www.nastar.com.